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Ten best films of 2009

Uncovering some gems in an uneven year at the movies.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / December 23, 2009

'Up in the Air': George Clooney plays a 'career transition consultant'.

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It was not the best of years; it was not the worst of years. But 2009 reaffirmed a truism about popular culture: One way or the other, whatever is going on in the zeitgeist will somehow seep into the movies. Some of the year’s more interesting films, as well as some of the least defensible, mirrored in often equal measure the world around them.

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This makes sense. If you look back to the movies of the Great Depression, the correlation between those films and that era is unmistakable. “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Top Hat” – despairing realism and ineffable escapism – were the period’s twin poles.

In the same way, movies of the great recession, more so than usual for Hollywood, alternate between woe and flat out fantasy. “Up in the Air” and “Star Trek” are equally representative. And because this recession is coupled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an added measure of disquiet. It’s a perfect storm of troubles.

Another strong correlation between the Great Depression and the great recession: substantially higher total ticket sales. Hollywood has already set an all-time box office record this year. Movies are good business in tough times.

This year’s contemporary war-themed movies, most of which took no sides on the rightness of the conflict, increasingly concentrated on the price the war is exacting on returning soldiers and their families. “The Hurt Locker,” about demolitions experts in Iraq, is ultimately about the unsettled psyche of a soldier, played by Jeremy Renner, who can no longer fit into civilian life. (This scenario, repeated in the current “Brothers,” is familiar from the films of the post-Vietnam era, with their pageant of damaged vets.)

The Messenger,” starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as Army officers assigned to the Casualty Notification Office, brings the Iraq war home in a way that no other movie has done. In its earliest and best sequences, it puts us right inside the instant agonies of those who have lost a loved one in battle.

As a counterweight to all this hard-edged realism, one might expect – indeed, welcome – a giddier take on the horrors. Many of us have been awaiting a “Dr. Strangelove” for the post-9/11 era. But apart from “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a failed attempt at a Terry Southern-like take on the war’s toll, satiric nihilism is apparently not ready for prime time. At least in America. The funniest political comedy of the year, and the one with the sharpest rapier edge, was the English screamathon “In the Loop,” set in Washington, D.C., and London, about the run-up to an Iraq-esque war in the Middle East. The film was like a cross between a hand grenade and a whoopee cushion.